Monday, November 14, 2005

The Mind-Brain Feedback Loop



Most people understand that when you change an aspect of the underlying physical structure of the brain you will alter your state of consciousness as well. This is evident from the effectiveness of psychoactive drugs. Psychoactive drugs alter the physical brain chemistry and hence alter the state of consciousness. I suspect, however, that less people understand that the opposite is true as well.

When you change your state of consciousness the physical structure of the brain changes accordingly. Every idea, memory, and even actions such as meditation can permanently alter the brain. Evidence of this is continually being discovered by cognitive scientists with our ever more powerful tools for understanding and imaging the human brain. An example of this comes from research that has been done on the brains of those who have meditated for many years. See this article. And if you have a bunch of time on your hands you can read this journal article (pdf) on the revolution in brain imaging that is allowing us to observe the functionality of cognition (Carpenter, P. A., & Just, M. A. (1999). Modeling the mind: Very High-field fMRI-activation during cognition. Topics in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, 10, 16-36. K. R. Thulborn (Issue Editor). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins). The implication of this is that mind is a real thing with ontological status which can effect the physical universe.

Many philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists, grounded in the metaphysics of materialism, believe that consciousness is either an illusion, or at best, an epiphenomenon. In other words they believe that matter is the only thing with real existence and therefor the only thing that really has causal efficacy with the implication that all thought is really only determined by a state of physics and that freedom is an illusion.

This debate has important implications for transhumanists and singularitarians. If conscious states of the mind effect cognitive architecture then all cultural activities are not just the result of neural structures and activities, they are also causes of neural activity and structures. This would imply that cultural/technological evolution is both a cause of human brain evolution and an effect of human brain evolution. In other words the evolution of ideas causes physical changes in the brains that collectivly share those ideas and in turn those physically changed brains are able to concieve of new ideas. I believe this mind-brain feedback loop is the motive force that is propelling evolution toward the singularity.

This is one reason why biological evolution and technological evolution are not two separate things, nor is speaking of technological evolution merely a metaphor. The complexity of human tools is evolving, and not in a manner which is annalogous to biological evolution but rather it is but one aspect of biological evolution because those tools are nothing more than the manifestation of a biological evolution, namely the evolution of homo sapiens.

I raise this point because many singularitarians and transhumanists believe that the cognitive architecture of human brains can only evolve through either natural or artificial selection of genes. This, however, is clearly not the case. This is not to say that genetic natural selection is not occurring, nor is it to say that artificial genetic selection and engineering will not have a powerful effect on the evolution of the human brain. All I am arguing for is that memetic natural selection and the corresponding evolution of technology and culture are forcing the the brain to physically evolve. This is because each generation of human brains must assimilate to a new degree of memetic complexity and cultural evolution and correspondingly must also physically adapt their neural architecture to that degree of cultural evolution. Perhaps this is the cause of the Flynn Effect.

Also note that if the brain is altered or augmented through technological means - which I beleive will happen to a greater extent in the near future - that this technology is itself knowledge that the human brain aquired, ultimately, through natural selection. This is because the ability to increasingly obtain and transmit knowledge from one gereration to the next is a quintiseential property of the human brain which exists only because nature selected for it.



The art work pictured above was done by Alex Grey (one of my favorite artists)
You can view more of his work here.

22 Comments:

These studies are new and informative, and you're right that it's not hard to understand that using a part of the body--in this case, the brain--might lead to physical changes in that area. However, this is not "evolution" since there is no indication that such changes are passed along for future generations of potential development. A better comparison might be made to developing one's muscles through exercise, limited by the bio-physical properties of the body.

I appreciate the optimism expressed in this blog article, and I hope that you might appreciate that the growth of humanity's capabilities will be best served by increasingly objective instrumental knowledge, guided by increasing awareness of human values.

- Jef

By Blogger Jef Allbright, at 15/11/05 10:07  

On MindHacks.com yesterday was this post on meditation thickening gray area in the brain: http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2005/11/meditation_can_alter.html

Also, your post has motivated me to create a lengthy reply on my blog. It helps I am in the process of writing a (somewhat) lengthy paper on freewill and substance dualism.

By Blogger Daniel Poynter, at 15/11/05 11:35  

Jeff, I am not trying to stipulate that this constitutes some kind of Lemarkian evolution. The point of my post is that memes are not so differfent than genes because as the organism which is humanity evolves (sociological, technologicaly, economicaly etc.)the memes that are passed from brain to brain and from generation to generation have a physical effect on our physical brains. This is not an example of classical neo-darwinism but it is biological evolution nontheless - albeit a different mechanism. What I mean to say is that genes are no longer the only major player when it comes to the transmission of information for the purpose of biological replication. Sorry if what I am saying is not making sense. I am finding it difficult to communicate exactly what I mean.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 15/11/05 23:28  

I can't wait to read what you have to say Dan. I'm sure it will be thought provoking.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 15/11/05 23:29  

Micah:

"Spiritual Machines" and now "The Singularity is Near" dealt with a related concept.

Kurzweil's idea was that progress is a law of nature. First came chemistry when information was written in the structure of atoms.

The next information revolution was biology. Information stored in DNA could be "remembered" and experimented with over generations.

The next information revolution was the brain. This allowed immediate response to the environment rather than responses that took generations to manifest as with evolution.

Next was language, then writing.

Now we have the computer revolution. This allows now for immediate sharing of knowledge globablly.


Maybe this is the point I'm making: we are spiritual beings - creature of memes and dreams. DNA doesn't care about us as individuals, and we shouldn't feel obligated to live by the "goals" or limitations of natural biology.

So we can, if we choose, divorce the sex act from reproduction. Most people do (contraception).

We eat more for enjoyment than for sustenance. The unfortunate side-effect is that we Americans are getting very fat (thank you DNA). I imagine that we will soon seriously address this problem soon.

We could all care less about the "goals" of disease DNA and RNA. We'll find their weaknesses and exploit them for cures. I think within the decade.

Aging is natural, but who cares? We'll beat that too. Give us two or three decades for that.

The next information revolution will be in our hands. Some of us may choose to abandon biology completely.

At that point people could structure their own minds as they see fit. Then your vision will be realized in full.


Cool picture by the way.

By Blogger Stephen Gordon, at 16/11/05 20:47  

Thanks for the feedback Stephen. Much of what I am saying is indeed a direct result of careful thinking about the radical ramifications of Kurzweil's Law.
You are corect in pointing out that the natural end of this stage of human evolution is the absolute control of the mind over the brain. Or as you put it:
"The next information revolution will be in our hands. Some of us may choose to abandon biology completely.
At that point people could structure their own minds as they see fit."

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 17/11/05 03:39  

This idea of abandoning biology seems extremely premature. It's fun to talk about, though. Thanks for the stimulating post.

To me the only path to any meaningful singularity is by learning to use the human brain well enough to change the brain, and learning how to use the changed brain well enough to change it some more. It will take several "ratcheting ups" of the human brain before enough people will be intelligent enough to sustain enough mastery of biology to allow moving away from biology.

By Blogger al fin, at 17/11/05 20:32  

Hi Daniel,

I've written several freewill-versus-determinism essays which argue that the mind-brain feedback loop is the mental mechanism that enables free agency / freewill. My latest piece, "Causality Buffers: Layers of Abstractions", can be found at my website, AtheistExile.com. Here's the link:

http://atheistexile.com/causebuff.html

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By Anonymous Anonymous, at 28/4/09 20:59  

www.viking-z.org had the following comments just now:

"It looks like the mechanism for transferring data forward from one generation to the next is via information and ability genes. These must be capable of being programmed, written, erased and re-written. There is plenty of junk DNA to suit the purpose. This mechanism is essential in a bee hive, probably useful in a dog, but quite unsuited to anyone who claims to have intelligence. This reminds one of the book by Richard Dawkins, "The Selfish Gene", where Prof Dawkins suggests that survival is more to do with the survival of genes than the survival of a species.

Genes are not contagious. Memes (self replicating units of thought suggested by Dawkins) are contagious. However memes need suitable programmable genes to attach themselves. Memes and genes act as locks on each other. However Dawkins is an atheist and Atheism is as simplistic as any other religion. Memes can be erased and programmable genes can be reprogrammed."

--

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